Business, pleasure mix at the city's Latino Fest

Festival: The lively event offered entertainment, food, cultural demonstrations - and outreach to one of Baltimore's newer communities.

July 01, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The heavy 90-degree heat made Dini McCullough's thick white dress feel more like a prison than a festive garment by the end of her hour on stage.

"It was outrageous," McCullough said, plopping into a chair in the scant shade of Patterson Park. But such discomfort was a small price to pay, she said, for bringing part of her native culture to her adopted home.

McCullough, part of a company dancing in the traditional Mexican Folklorico style, was among the scores of performers, chefs, artists and activists who fueled the city's 22nd annual Latino Fest yesterday and Saturday. Beyond offering entertainment, hundreds of brightly colored flags and costumes, and tasty foods, the festival was on schedule to raise more than $35,000 for Education Based Latino Outreach, organizers said yesterday afternoon.

Like most of the festival's participants, McCullough was not born in Baltimore. She grew up in Texas with an Irish father and a Mexican mother. Her grandmother taught her to speak Spanish and instilled in her a deep love for Mexican culture. Her family later moved to Washington, and when she was looking into law school, she chose the University of Maryland partly because she was interested in helping build Baltimore's nascent Hispanic community.

She has worked in the city Public Defender's office for the past two years, and in her spare time dances for the Maryland-based Latin American Danza Company. Working with the growing Hispanic community has been as exciting as she expected, she said yesterday: "It's really uncharted ground. A lot of times, when people around here discuss social issues, they discuss black and white only, but that's going to be changing."

Census statistics say that Hispanics constitute less than 2 percent of the city's population, meaning Baltimore remains one of the cities least affected by the Hispanic population boom of the past decade. But that won't be the case forever, said Jose Ruiz, Mayor Martin O'Malley's liaison to the Hispanic community and a longtime organizer of Latino Fest.

Charging through the crowd with a familiar handshake and a "Hey, amigo" for nearly everyone, Ruiz remembered the festival's first year in Fells Point. "We had one band because this friend of mine felt sorry and agreed to play," he said. "They played the same tune over and over, and no one came to the party."

By contrast, this year's festival featured more than 10 musical acts, and Ruiz estimated that on Saturday alone, between 15,000 and 25,000 people attended. "Saturday night, man, it was like body-to-body out here, everybody swaying and dancing," he said.

In recognition of the community's growing force, corporate sponsors supported the festival, and the two leading gubernatorial candidates made appearances, Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on Saturday and Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend yesterday.

Beneath the entertainment lay serious efforts at community-building, with health outreach a particular focus. Local health systems are rarely set up to handle the language or cultural needs of Hispanics, said Angelo Solera, a native of Spain who has lived in the city for 22 years and works for Baltimore Health Care Access Inc.

"On the one hand, this festival shows people we are here, we are strong, this is our culture and we want you to enjoy it," Solera said. "On the other hand, we need to show that there's a real gap between this community and what the city provides. What works for Americans does not always work for Latinos."

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